When Colorado became the first state in the union to abolish slavery from its constitution last year — thanks to the efforts of a multi-year, grassroots campaign — people were shocked it hadn’t been done sooner. Many weren’t even aware that slavery was still legal. Yet, buried in our Colorado Constitution, between its declarations of freedom and the rule of law, was a clause that once read: “There shall never be in this state either slavery or involuntary servitude EXCEPT as punishment for a crime, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.”
This loophole was a deeply offensive reminder of one of America’s most egregious crimes. My ancestors — the men and women whose names I will never know — were sold from their homelands, reduced to property and beaten and terrorized until the day they died. Their bodies were repurposed for chattel labor. Their condition was perpetual and ordained by white folks and the God they professed. Through my ancestors’ hands — through all the rice, cotton, sugar cane, lumber and tobacco — America was plucked, picked and peeled into existence. Slavery, like our nation’s proclamations of faith, was enshrined in every institution in our lives: church, school, work and even the most powerful document of them all — the U.S. Constitution.
This exception to human suffering — written over 150 years ago and found in the 13th Amendment — has enabled our nation to continue to reduce black people to free labor. Almost immediately after the Civil War, laws were enacted to make it easy to incarcerate tens of thousands of black people and force them back onto plantations. Loitering, unemployment and any minor infraction of Jim Crow laws were classified as felonies. Black people were convicted, sentenced, incarcerated and forced to work without pay. The amendment that initially appeared to grant the promise of freedom instead did quite the opposite, facilitating a wave of re-enslavement in the South. It was nothing short of an extended declaration of white supremacy.
The idea that slavery and involuntary servitude could be a suitable punishment for crime went beyond racist and punitive legislation. Following the ratification of the 13th Amendment, 26 state constitutions went on to adopt similar, and in some cases identical, language. While some of these states were already notorious for their use of chattel slavery — such as Georgia, Mississippi, Louisiana, Kentucky, Alabama, Arkansas and Indiana — others, like Colorado, didn’t even become states until years after the Civil War. That means, when they created loopholes for slavery, it was actually the first time they were institutionalizing the practice. Such a decision speaks to the strength and influence of the U.S. Constitution. It was, and still is, the model states turn to when deciding government structure and practice.
As a result, changing the U.S. Constitution itself is no easy task. It requires an abundance of resources, people and organizational structure — something a small grassroots campaign in Colorado simply could not mount. Changing the state’s constitution, however, was a much more tangible first step.
Building the campaign
The idea to make Colorado the flagship for abolishing slavery was inspired and created by a close friend of mine, Jumoke Emery, who was wrongfully arrested and detained at gunpoint in 2014. He spent the weekend shackled and placed in a human cage, wondering if he was going to go to prison. As a black man who dedicated much of his life to studying and participating in social justice work, he was already aware of the slavery loophole in the U.S. Constitution. So, he couldn’t help but wonder what it would mean for him to become a prisoner in a country that legally permits slavery as punishment for a crime. While he was eventually released — with all of the charges dropped — he walked away from the experience feeling motivated to do something about a system that specializes in consuming black and brown men.
Knowing that if had he gone to prison, it would have likely been a state facility, rather than a federal one — simply because of the charges he faced — he began to wonder if Colorado’s Constitution was anything like the U.S. Constitution. To his surprise, it was. Article II Section 26 was almost identical to the wording found in the 13th Amendment. Jumoke then took this information to the grassroots organization Together Colorado, where he worked at the time (and where I currently work). They quickly agreed to lead a campaign aimed at abolishing the pro-slavery loophole during the 2016 elections.
Over the next year, Together Colorado worked with state legislators to introduce a referendum that would add an amendment question directly to the ballot. In 2016, that referendum passed unanimously in the Colorado House and Senate, allowing the ballot to include “Amendment T,” which — if approved by 50 percent of voters — would remove the exception for slavery and involuntary servitude. Together Colorado then formed a coalition with the NAACP, ACLU, Interfaith Alliance and other faith-based institutions to educate the electorate. During the months leading up to the election, their members knocked on doors, held rallies, and paid for digital ads encouraging voters to vote “yes” on Amendment T.
Despite the effort, however, Amendment T failed by just 1 percent of the vote. Advocates assumed most voters were perplexed by the confusing language on their ballot, which said: “Shall there be an amendment to the Colorado Constitution concerning the removal of the exception to the prohibition of slavery and involuntary servitude when used as punishment for persons duly convicted of a crime?” The double-negative in the language may have led voters who supported the abolition of slavery from Colorado’s Constitution into voting against the initiative. Others, however, expressed little concern with the idea that slavery could be a modern punishment for a crime. Clearly, more work had to be done.
In 2018, Together Colorado decided to run another ballot measure initiative. As a staff member with the organization at this point, I was given the honor of managing and facilitating the steering committee of the coalition. Many of the organizers and co-creators of Amendment T were involved with the revived project. We were determined to win, and we recognized that we had to rethink our strategies and tactics to achieve victory. We understood this exception for slavery was born out of a terrible, violent history and that it represents an immoral practice that most would recognize as wrong today. But we needed to go deeper. We wanted to communicate this as a contemporary and urgent issue. There were questions to answer in order to make this campaign successful: Is the practice of slavery still alive today? What does it mean to have this awful loophole in our founding document? What could be the implications of closing this loophole? To address these questions, we had to lead with the truth.
The truth is: Slavery is alive today through mass incarceration. I grew up knowing that our prison system was deeply racist, but I never thought to call it slavery until 2013, when I met my uncle, Joseph Bell Jr., who was incarcerated for 21 years for a crime he did not commit. Uncle Joe held a very precious place in my family. He was a pillar that was abruptly removed from its place. To the generations before, he was the griot, or storyteller, who kept family traditions and secrets. But to those of us who were born in the ‘90s, like myself, he was completely removed from our lives.
Incarceration has a devastating way of expunging a human being from existence — no matter how important or loved they are. Inmates are ejected from society and forced to watch the world move on without them. Their names are spoken less and less, and the shock that once swept their families and communities turns numb. Eventually, their names leave the mouths of their loved ones, as they are forced deeper into obscurity. Such was the fate of Uncle Joe. I didn’t know anything about him until we met.
My uncle shared stories about the family that were tragic, funny and precious. He spoke about his early childhood in Shreveport, Louisiana and how a mob of white men had sought to lynch his father. He remembered the “early days” of our family’s move to Los Angeles. To him, my mother was always “that little Jenny from around the block,” who was too hard headed for her own good. He shared memories about my Uncle Ralph “when he had hair.” Uncle Joe was the rock in our family — a dying generation who told tales of Jim Crow and jambalaya.
Amidst these stories, however, I also learned about his incarceration and how he was treated while in bondage. I learned that he was forced to work and that — if he refused — he was beaten and put into solitary confinement. He was only paid 25 cents per day and, with that, he was expected to buy everything he needed at full price: soap, toothpaste, toilet paper, snacks — all the little things that keep us human.
My uncle’s body couldn’t take the day-to-day stress of being worked like an animal, talked to like an animal, and not even having the rights and protections that are afforded to animals. His request for medical help at the infirmary fell on deaf ears. When he got out in 2013, he was diagnosed with cancer and died three years later. I had just three years to love him and to learn about the system that took him from us.
Uncle Joe was one of the millions of people who suffered the bondage of modern-day slavery. He represents what could happen when our constitution turns a blind eye to human rights abuses. And so our 2018 campaign to abolish slavery moved with the urgency of people like Uncle Joe in mind. In every meeting and campaign event we organized, I carried Uncle Joe’s memory with us. I was determined to make sure our constitution could never be complicit with the way he was treated.
That being said, our campaign had to lead with a second truth: The constitution is not directly responsible for the laws and policies that govern our prisons. Much of that is decided by the state legislature and the department of corrections. Therefore, simply removing the loophole for slavery from the constitution will have no direct impact on how people like Uncle Joe are treated while incarcerated. Instead, it is a first step — one that recognizes that the power and scope of our constitution should never, at the very least, be complicit with the practice of prison slavery.
We recognized that loopholes can be, and have been, exploited and that the legal framework for slavery must be totally and absolutely destroyed. On Nov. 6, 2018, Colorado did exactly that, as 65 percent of Coloradans voted to right these historic wrongs — and both parties in the state legislature supported this measure unanimously. Our campaign was a success.
The opportunity before us today
Victory is impossible without a fight. Our campaign was met with racist and violent vitriol from people who view prisoners as less than human. We were met with cowardly assertions that our campaign would destroy the rule of law itself. People speculated that we were trying to do harm to the greater good of society. One hateful individual tried to intimidate Jumoke by igniting a stack of our fliers on the front porch of his house. The fear, paranoia and hatred we encountered on this campaign was a startling reminder of how far we have yet to come. But who were we not to try? What would have been the cost to our freedoms if we gave into their fear mongering and intimidation?
There is an opportunity before us today. Although we are living in the era of mass incarceration, we are also witnessing a heightened awareness about these issues. Numerous books, documentaries, podcasts, articles and movies have been produced to shed light on the legacy of slavery and how certain policies and systemic attitudes created the society in which we live. Even 2020 presidential candidates are speaking thoughtfully about the possibilities of reparations for the descendants of the enslaved.
Meanwhile, building on our campaign’s victory in Colorado, similar movements in other states, such as Tennessee and Texas, are now mobilizing to end modern-day slavery within their prison systems. This is the kind of action that could lay the framework for eventually changing the U.S. Constitution. What’s more, when combined with the groundswell of resistance to the widespread privatization of — and corporate influence over — the carceral-industrial complex, it’s clear that the time to confront slavery and abolish it in all of its forms has never been better.
Since 1918, the Fellowship of Reconciliation has published the award-winning print magazine Fellowship. It is also now online, offering original grassroots analysis, movement research, first-person commentary, poetry and more to help people of faith and conscience build a nonviolent, compassionate world.
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